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Dedovshchina and the Role of Officers

Six conscripts who served both in units where dedovshchina was absent and where it was rife were consistent in the way they described the role of the officers in dedovshchina. In the former units the officers “cared,” in the latter they did not. In the former units, these conscripts said, officers sent a clear message to soldiers that dedovshchina (or, at least, abusive practices associated with it) would not be tolerated, in the latter the message was mixed at best. The research conducted for this report indicates that the vast majority of officers belong to the former. Indeed, we repeatedly encountered evidence that officers actively use or encourage dedovshchina as a means of maintaining discipline in units subordinate to them.

This is unfortunate, as the conscripts’ testimony so clearly suggests that officers are a determining factor for the prevalence and extent of dedovshchina in military units, and that an officers’ corps focused in its effort to eradicate initiation abuses can be successful. These testimonies also illustrate how the attitude of the majority of officers translates into day-to-day practices at military bases. In units where dedovshchina was absent conscripts said that officers had a visible presence on the base, maintained a certain closeness to rank-and-file soldiers, were alert to evidence of dedovshchina, and successfully used prevention mechanisms. This contrasted sharply with officer arrangements on bases where dedovshchina was prevalent: conscripts who served on such bases said that officers were not visibly present on the base, made no effort to maintain contact with ordinary soldiers, and reduced prevention mechanisms to empty formalities.

Secondly, conscripts said that officers in units without dedovshchina were willing to act on evidence of incipient dedovshchina. In these units, officers were apparently able—through the clarity of their position on dedovshchina, their presence on the base, and their frequent direct contacts with rank-and-file soldiers—to break through the rule of silence, get to the bottom of incidents, and take steps against the perpetrators. In contrast, in the majority of units, officers made at best half-hearted efforts to look into incidents that collapsed in the face of the rule of silence and the lack of trust first-year conscripts in these units have in their commanding officers.

While Human Rights Watch recognizes the problems the Russian armed forces have had in attracting qualified junior officers, these difficulties may not serve as an excuse for the unacceptable attitude of the majority of junior officers in Russia toward abuses related to dedovshchina.

Good and Bad Units: The Contrast

Example 1: Aleksei K.212

“[I went to unit] 37115 in Krasnodar Region, the city of Eisk, there is a school for junior specialists, junior sergeants, a training unit. There, everything was just fine. I was there for the first six months. After two months of service, we were part of the group, and I had thoughts that I might stay on, on a contract. The group was very good, there was no resentment… The Code of Conduct was [observed]—everything was very strict… They [the officers] simply paid attention… We were an air defense unit, we studied armory. You get up in the morning, do physical exercise, eat...and go to the classes. In class, we studied both general topics and our own specialty, the machinery and equipment that we would serve on. It was interesting.”

“[After several months] they sent twelve of us to Totskoe, in Orenburg Province. That is a place that is, I would say, rather unpleasant… On the third day, we had gone to bed, as usual… They [the Dagestantsy] started beating us blindly. [It didn’t matter where you where,] on the lower or upper berth – they hit you with a stool or an iron rod… It only quieted down when we were transferred to new barracks. We were on the first three floors, and new recruits on the fourth, they were just doing the young fighter’s course.”

Example 2: Andrei T.213

Soon after finishing basic training, Andrei T. wrote his mother with a simple message: “Mama, take me away from here.” His mother initially refused reminding him that military service was not a summer camp and that he himself had wanted to serve. However, she continued to receive letters from her son pleading to be taken away, and eventually one threatening suicide. When she visited him at the unit, her son told her that the dedy regularly beat and kicked him and extorted money from him. Finally, after an extended illness, Andrei T. received short-term leave and went home. There, his mother arranged for him to be transferred to a different unit.

At the time of Human Rights Watch’s interview, Andrei T. was finishing his service in the new unit. His mother was pleased with the new unit. She said that her son looked healthy and was in good spirits. He told her that the food at the unit was good, that the dedy did not demand soap, tooth paste, and other items from him, and that they receive their salary.

Example 3: Alexander Sokolov214

I initially went to Outpost Two, where I had basic training for a month. There we learned all the skills, they gave us weapons and we learned to shoot. We learned to take apart and put together weapons. They taught us how to search for signs of trespassers… At Outpost Two, the commander more or less kept everything under control… At night, a duty officer was in the barracks. There was a bodily examination every morning but no-one ever had any bruises.

After a month, I went to Outpost One. One could say that Outpost One was a mess. [The commanders] drank. There were no [checks for bruises]. At night, the dedy made us perform ‘electric chair’: You stand in semi-sitting position and stretch your hands out. They sometimes beat us. I never got injured but there were times when I really got it… At Outpost Two they fed us much better than at Outpost One. There the starshina paid attention [to the meals].

Example 4: Andrei D.215

Andrei D. served in two units that were practically free of hazing. He spent his first few months of service with a chemical troops training unit, which strictly followed the military code of conduct. He said that he and his peers studied and trained intensively, and that nobody complained or ran away. According to him, the commander of the battalion monitored the situation closely and did not tolerate any excesses. He said that even food and other items he had brought from home were stored in the storage room, and given out to the conscripts when they asked for them.

After about five months in the training unit, Andrei D. was transferred to a regular chemical troops unit where, he said, soldiers lived “as one family.” At that unit, he said, “we learned in practice what we had learned in theory in the training unit.”

Then, after about a year, Andrei D. was transferred to a chemical troops unit in Verkhnaia Pyshma. There, he encountered a completely different situation: Caucasians in the unit forced first-year Russian conscripts to perform all sorts of chores for them, extorted money, beat them in punishment or gratuitously, and regularly woke them up at night and abused them. As a second-year conscript, he said, he was beaten occasionally when he refused to perform chores for the Caucasians but was left alone most of the time. He told Human Rights Watch that officers at that unit did not intervene in any way. He said: “There were almost never officers around... [I think] that the junior officers were afraid of them [the Caucasians] themselves because they never complained to them about anything.”

Example 5: Anatolii Z.216

Anatolii Z. initially served in a unit in Novoaltaisk, where he said the dedy beat him and his peers regulary: “Outside, they beat us with their hands and feet. In the company, they beat us with iron bars and stools.” He said that they regularly walked around with bruises but the officers did not care. Anatilii Z.’s mother finally took him home when he was in the sickbay because, as she told Human Rights Watch, “I understood that if he returns [to his unit] I will not see my son again.”

At the time of the interview with Human Rights Watch, Anatolii Z. was continuing his service at a unit closer to home. He said: “Here [relations with senior conscripts] are just like with conscripts your own draft. There is no [hazing] here… Here, if the commander suspects something, he immediately sends away the person who wants to establish his own rules.”

Example 6: Vasilii B.217

Vasilii B. served in a military unit in Uzhur, where he said there were beatings practically everyday. Dedy extorted money and other goods from first-year conscripts, confiscated packages from relatives, and woke them up at night for punishment and beatings. Unwilling to put up with the abuse, Vasilii B. ran away.

Shortly after, a captain and ensign from his unit came to his house and asked him to come back. Vasilii B. told Human Rights Watch that he decided to go back to the unit with them.  When he got there, he said, the commander came up to him and said: “Come here! Why did you run away? I’ll hang them all! Couldn’t you have just come to me and told me?” Vasilii B. later learned that the commander had punished the two dedy who had been most abusive toward him. He also said that the commander introduced daily bodily examinations:

We had a medical assistant, a woman, she undressed everyone everyday. If the commander noticed a bruise, M. and I. [the two abusive dedy] were immediately called to account. Then everything became normal and nobody beat anybody. When they [M. and I.] were discharged, the unit became golden altogether. Nobody abused anybody.

Shortly after, Vasilii B. himself became a junior and later senior sergeant. Responsible for maintaining discipline, he said that he obviously punished first-year conscripts when they broke the rules—for example, by making them run—but “there was no setting people up against each other.”


They could break your nose, knock out your teeth. Nobody is going to notice a bruise because the commander was drunk all the time. He was going to retire [soon] and he did not stop any of this in any way.—Alexander Kaiankin218

Considering the prevalence of dedovshchina in the Russian armed forces, its consequences, and attention to it in the Russian media, one would expect a certain vigilance among officers toward signs of abuse. However, in most units, it is conspicuously absent. Officers are far removed from the rank-and-file soldiers, often not visibly present on the base, and routinely close their eyes to evidence of abuses. For example, Andrei Z., a regular victim of beatings during his first year of service, said that “nobody ever saw any officers” in his unit.219 His words were echoed by Aleksei Riabov, who served in the notorious 32-nd Gorodok: “The officers were never around.”220 Vasilii S. said the officers in his unit were content to be ignorant: “Our captain comes to work, sits down at his desk, and fills out some paperwork. He doesn’t go outside, he doesn’t ask how everyone is doing.” S. was convinced that the officers could guess what the dedy were doing to first-year conscripts but chose not to find out.221

In some units, the breakdown of oversight was so complete that dedy made no effort to conceal their abusive practices. For example, at Anatolii Z.’s unit, the dedy did not care about leaving bruises. He said officers might ask conscripts about clearly visible bruises but said none of the first-year conscripts would disclose their origin and officers would not press them too hard for it.222 When a Human Rights Watch researcher asked Andrei D. if the dedy beat their victims in concealed areas, he responded with surprise: “Why? There were never any officers on the base.”223

In other units, dedy did try to avoid leaving visible signs of beatings because officers might notice. They said that beatings often took place in concealed areas or at night in the barracks when the officers had gone home. While officers in these units may have been somewhat vigilant to signs of dedovshchina, this vigilance was still very limited.For example, Stanislav F. told Human Rights Watch:

They tried not to beat us so much that they left [obvious] bruises and abrasions. [They aim] mostly for the legs. It was easiest to kick you in the legs. You feel it and there are [generally] no bruises. And if there are… no one’s going to pay attention to that.224

Prevention Mechanisms

The Military Code of Conduct contains a number of mechanisms that should, if consistently enforced, help prevent dedovshchina. For example, commanding officers are required to monitor the health conditions of all staff during battle training and everyday life, to conduct weekly superficial physical examinations of all conscripts, as well as semi-annual, extensive physicals.225 Although not required by the Military Code of Conduct, in some units an officer or ensign stays in the barracks at night as a measure to prevent dedovshchina. Human Rights Watch’s research found that in practice, these prevention mechanisms are often ignored or are turned into empty formalities.

Several conscripts told Human Rights Watch that they underwent in-depth physicals only when transferred from one unit to another but not after every six months of service. One conscript told Human Rights Watch that superficial physicals were conducted every week while he was in a special training unit. He said that he and his fellow conscripts had to undress to their underwear, after which the commander of his company and the medical doctor checked them for bruises and health problems. Once he was moved to a regular unit, these body checks ceased.226 Another conscript said that “in our unit, they checked our pockets for sharp objects every day but we never had any body checks. In the early months, I walked around with several large bruises...”227 Petr P. said: “I don’t think they checked all that much. Maybe a couple of times.”228

Even regular physicals will not help if physicians routinely accept at face value conscripts’ explanations on their bruises. For example, Ilia B. said the medical doctor of the sickbay checked them weekly for bruises. Asked whether the doctor ever found any bruises, B. said: “Of course she did. One person will say he fell in the bathroom when he was washing—after all, it gets slippery there, another might say he bumped into a bed.” He said that in these cases there was no effort to get to the bottom of what had really happened.229

The mere presence of officers in barracks is not enough to prevent abuses; the officers have to intervene to stop them. In some units, officers or ensigns stayed in or near the barracks at night, apparently as a precaution against nightly abuses. However, several conscripts told Human Rights Watch that the officers on duty at the barracks refused to intervene with dedovshchina or, while stopping the abuses, failed to take steps to punish the perpetrators. For example, Petr P. said that one officer stayed over night at his frontier post but paid no attention to what was going on in the barracks: for a full month, dedy beat him and his peers practically every night, but the officer never noticed or intervened.230 Stepan M. said that dedy regularly woke up junior conscripts individually over the three months he served in a railroad troops unit north of St. Petersburg, despite the fact that an ensign slept in the barracks. Once, he said, dedy woke him and six other first-year conscripts up, put them in a row, and beat them over the course of several hours. Finally, the ensign woke up from the noise and sent everyone to their beds. He apparently took no steps to punish the dedy for beating M. and the others.231

Complaints and the “Rule of Silence”

Nobody complained. It simply was not done.—Alexander Kaiankin232

It was useless to fight. You can’t do anything. You don’t want to tell the commander; for telling they humiliate you later… I did not complain and didn’t say anything.
- Vasilii B.233

Effective complaint procedures are crucial to a government’s effort to bring initiation abuses in check. However, Human Rights Watch’s research found that complaint procedures in the Russian armed forces are not effective. The overwhelming majority of conscripts interviewed for this report did not report abuses to their commanders, medical professionals, or the procuracy, because of the dedy enforced “rule of silence.”234 First-year conscripts almost universally cited fear of repercussion from dedy and a lack of trust in officers and others as the reasons for not filing complaints. Officers are likely aware of the code of silence but the overwhelming majority of them do not appear to take any effective steps to break this code: as a rule, they do not act on clear evidence of abuse, or, when they do, they generally accept at face value unlikely explanations as to the origin of the injuries.

After a ded hit him over the head with a stool and landed him in the sickbay, Anton A. did not complain to an officer. He told Human Rights Watch: “If you tell the officers, you make life more difficult for yourself.” Some of his fellow conscripts had tried complaining to officers, he said, but officers “hardly reacted, and rarely helped… They kind of don’t care.”235 Stepan M., who suffers from hepatitis C, also decided not to complain after a fellow soldier hit him hard in the liver area. He said: “If you say something you’ll be humiliated in the company. They may beat you or may force you to constantly clean the toilets.”236

Several conscripts told Human Rights Watch that dedy specifically reminded them of the rule of silence. Alexander Sukhanov said that the morning after a ded hit him in the face he woke up with a swollen jaw: “[the ded] looked at me and told me that if the ensign notices anything I should not say anything…” Sukhanov ran away from his unit that evening because he felt that if he did not say anything, the ded would feel that “anything goes.”237 After a ded beat Petr P. over the head with a stool, causing a bloody nose, he told P. to “go wash yourself and don’t tell [anybody] anything.”238

Complaining to Medical Professionals

Lack of trust and the rule of silence meant that most conscripts also refused to reveal the true origins of their injuries to medical personnel at sickbays and military hospitals, all of whom are uniformed officials. Instead, many made up–often highly unlikely—stories. Testimony gathered for this report suggests that medical personnel at sickbays routinely took these explanations at face value, even when they were not consistent with the injuries.

For example, one day, Aleksei Riabov was beaten in the bathroom. A group of Caucasian conscripts first hit him to the ground and then kicked him several times as he was lying down. After a few hours in pain, Riabov’s fellow conscripts helped him get to the sickbay. There, he told medical personnel that he had fallen from some steps. Riabov told Human Rights Watch that he was transferred from the sickbay to a hospital in Cheliabinsk, where he received surgery because one of his kidneys had ripped.239 A ded hit Anton A. over the head with a stool. He was taken to the sickbay with a concussion and had to explain in a written statement how he had sustained the injury. He wrote that he had fallen and hit his head against the wall. His explanation was apparently taken at face value.240 Andrei T. told his mother that he told medical personnel at the sickbay a made-up story about the origin of multiple bruises on his chest because he was afraid to tell the truth: “Mama, I did not say that they beat me. I said that I fell from a watchtower.” He also told his mother that he had not stood guard on the tower that day and that military officials could easily have verified his story, and found out that he had made it up. Apparently no one bothered to check.241

Vladimir Z. went to the sickbay because he suffered pain in his heart area at night. The medical attendant examined him, told him he was fine, and sent him back to the barracks. Vladimir Z. noted that he had been beaten repeatedly in previous days and that he had numerous bruises on his back. Although the attendant had to notice the bruises, she asked him nothing about them.242

[212] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksei K.

[213] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Andrei T.

[214] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander Sokolov.

[215] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrei D.

[216] Human Rights Watch interview with Anatolii Z. , November 7, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Anatolii Z. served in units 54076 in Novoaltaisk and 25626 in Cheliabinsk of the railroad troops. Anatolii Z. is a pseudonym.

[217] Human Rights Watch interview with Vasilii B.

[218] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander Kaiankin.

[219] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrei Z., November 4, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Andrei Z. served in unit 41581 in Sverdlovsk Province. Andrei Z. is a pseudonym.

[220] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksei Riabov. Riabov served in a ministry of defense unit in 32d Gorodok, and at units in Shadrinsk and Karabash (Cheliabinsk Province). 32-nd Gorodok near Ekaterinburg appears to be one of the most abusive bases in the Ural region. For years, a disproportionately large percentage of the conscripts who seek the help the Association of Soldiers Mothers in Cheliabinsk have runaway from that base. Although military structures are well aware of the situation—in part because of repeated complaints from the Association—no steps have apparently been taken to end the abuses. According to Liudmila Zinchenko of Association, “In 32-nd Gorodok things remain as they were [two years ago]. In the last year, it has [actually] gotten worse.”

[221] Human Rights Watch interview with Vasilii S.

[222] Human Rights Watch interview with Anatolii Z.

[223] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrei D.

[224] Human Rights Watch interview with Stanislav F., November 7, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Stanislav F. served, among others, in a training unit in Elan, Sverdlov Province. Stanislav F. is a pseudonym.

[225] Articles 341 and 342 of the Military Code of Conduct.

[226] Human Rights Watch interview with Petr K., July 31, 2003, St. Petersburg. Petr K. served in the Ministry of Defense’s unit 67616 in Kamenka, Leningrad Province. Petr K. is a pseudonym.

[227] Human Rights Watch interview with Anton S., July 31, 2003, St. Petersburg. Anton S. is a pseudonym.

[228] Human Rights Watch interview with Petr P.

[229] Human Rights Watch interview with Ilia B. For more on this, see below, Complaining  to Medical Professionals.

[230] Human Rights Watch interview with Petr P.

[231] Human Rights Watch interview with Stepan M.

[232] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander Kaiankin.

[233] Human Rights Watch interview with Vasilii B.

[234] Interestingly, the rule of silence extends even beyond military structures. The parents of several conscripts said that their sons were afraid to tell them about the cause of their injuries. They apparently feared that their parents would complain to their commanders. Galina F. told Human Rights Watch her son, Alexander F. came home on leave in early 2002. When she noticed that his ear was blue, she asked him whether he had been beaten. Her son denied, saying it was frostbite. That evening, while her son was sleeping, F. found that he had multiple bruises on his back, shoulders, and legs, and one on his behind. The next morning F. told her son he should file a complaint with the procuracy. Her son told her he would not: “Do you want all the guys to be punished because of me?” (Human Rights Watch interview with Galina F.) When Stepan K.’s mother noticed bruises on her son’s legs and asked him what had happened, he told her that “I fell down the stairs.” His mother told Human Rights Watch that his bruises, which covered both his legs from the hip to the ankle, were not consistent with falling down stairs, and said he had clearly been beaten. (Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Stepan K.)

[235] Human Rights Watch interview with Anton A.

[236] Human Rights Watch interview with Stepan M.

[237] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander Sukhanov and his mother.

[238] Human Rights Watch interview with Petr P.

[239] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksei Riabov.

[240] Human Rights Watch interview with Anton A.

[241] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Andrei T.

[242] Human Rights Watch interview with Vladimir Z.

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